The ‘Yoga Body’ Myth: the perils of poorly executed Natarajasana

#7 in my series on the myth of attaining perfection through yoga. Yoga is not a style of dance.

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Christy Turlington is gorgeous to behold. We all know that. And Natarajasana (dancer’s pose) is a really fancy pose. Put the two together and something exquisite should happen, right? Sadly, nope. Though blessed with hip sockets that open like a book, Christy exhibits a less than healthy Natarajasana (below). Check out her right hip hitched up like that – not good for her sacral or lumbar region. Yet people the world over see her as a perfect embodiment of yoga. She’s a super slim, wealthy, good-looking supermodel so if she does an advanced pose that way, others will follow blindly. But please don’t let that be you.

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Rotated hip position, twisted lumbar. Tension evident in her face. Rotated right shoulder and a passive back foot. 

This pose is typically very risky for the lumbar spine as it requires a deep back bend (spinal extension) in order to reach for the foot behind you. That in itself is not a problem if you have a natural affinity with such movements; long arms, open shoulders and flexible hip joints. Worryingly, what I often see is people with average bodies extending their lumbar and rotating it at the same time as load-bearing just to get into a pose vaguely resembling this one. That’s the equivalent of doing a back arch whilst twisting your hips to one side whilst doing the splits in the air. Most people will stop breathing when they have pushed their body too hard in a pose, or show tension in their face and neck.

The below image is from a website recommending yogis to, quote, “Kick kick kick!” the back foot up to your reaching hand before pulling it into the highest position you can. Dear reader, you can imagine the effect that those repeated kicks would have on the lower back and shoulder of the beginner. I can already hear the joints popping!

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   Very problematic rotation of lumbar spine and shoulders not to mention a very questionable, angled left foot.

This above image is so very far from a healthy embodiment of Natarajasana that my back hurts just looking at her. I’d really like to see if she can reach that back foot with shoulders facing to the front and hips level to the floor. Probably not, because it seems more important that she get a nice photo with lots of udana (the upward energy that dancer’s pose is best known for). Below is a great example of what can happen when udana is lacking… and also what happens when we do decide to do yoga in a David Jones change room. 

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This version is interesting….wrong arm on the back foot, lady! Not to mention thoracic and lumbar spines rotating in opposite directions. Ouch. 

But who am I to judge those photographed in their attempts at a difficult, yet strengthening pose? Perhaps their intention is not for healthy alignment, just a sense of achievement (ego-pleasing) or to look ‘active’ in a photogenic pose? Perhaps what looks very wrong to me is not wrong, but very right for them at this point. But it’s not them I’m really worried about, it’s you and others who go to a yoga class with ideas in your head. Ideas that lead to injury and a bad-mouthing of yoga when you get injured.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the pose as embodied with healthy alignment. These examples are of people making the good decision to work within their limits – not with the intention of creating wow-factor. I’m guessing they are practising for the feeling of yoga, not to create photogenic moments.

rightBeginner being bendy!

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Now that’s a great way to ensure hips stay level to the floor and the lumbar spine is in minimal extension. Weird toes though – that’s a foot straining to be let out of its bind. 

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An advanced yogi using her smarts to make adjustments. She is aligned and healthfully contained within the pose. Such strength!

 

In short, I recommend you leave this pose for the advanced practitioners only. It’s just not worth the risk of injury to the one body you will get in this life. In particular, the delicate tendons that criss-cross the sacro-iliac joint, holding it steadily nestled in the back of your pelvis. It’s not a joint you want to mess with in any way, least of all in a deep back bend you’re not ready for. And that’s just one of the joints affected by this pose – almost every major muscle group in your front and back body will need to be strong to support you in such a delicate standing balance. 

I won’t do this advanced pose myself , not even on the floor, and I can communicate the reasons why I won’t for the sake of my spine and hypermobile joints. Natarajasana is not for beginners, nor intermediates. It’s well and truly advanced and requires years of dedicated practise and/or a dancer’s anatomy. It is called ‘Lord of the Dance’ pose for a reason. So if you walk into a drop-in class and this pose comes up somewhere in the mix, run a mile. Better still, modify it by doing shallow backbends on the floor that you enjoy. Remember, hips parallel to the floor yogis!

 

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